Thoughts on the mystik Sun Ra
Posted: May 18, 2003
From the concluding pages of SPACE IS THE PLACE: THE LIVES AND TIMES OF SUN RA by John F. Szwed (1997):
"There was nothing surprising about [Sun Ra's] mysticism per se: scratch any musician and you find a crypto-Pythagorean. Scratch music history and you find a line which stretches back at least as far as Marsilio Ficino in the 15th century and his belief that music is formed of the same substance as spirit, that it has the power to bring individuals into line with the heavens; or to Henry Cornelus Agrippa, who thought music had the power to raise the spirits of the dead. Sun Ra was in a long line of composer-mystics which included Ives, Schoenberg and Stockhausen, to name only a few moderns; and Ornette Colemn, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxon within the jazz tradition.
Sun Ra's ideas might seem strange, sometimes silly, but much of what he said seems to have parallels with the Gnostics, particularly those of the 12th-century Catharist religion practiced by a series of ascetic and heretical groups in the South of France, a group incidentally which had great influence on the troubadours of that era; but since some elements of it could also be found in various branches of African-American religion, his ideas lie perhaps in some even older spiritual teachings. If he had located his synthesis of these ideas strictly in the past (as he did with Egypt), he could have slipped by as a run-of-the-mill mystic. But when he positioned it in the ultramodern, in technology, in space travel, the warning signals went up....
...In cosmos drama and the Gesanmtrkunstwerk of his shows it was hard to dismiss him lightly. He assembled elements of music, dance, and art which had never been witnessed together, and yet at the same time seemed to distantly allude to tent shows, dance halls, and country churches, as well as to real or forgotten empires. And he did it with a level of intention and seriousness which seemed no longer possible.
A finely tuned if tortured moral sensibility pervaded all of his work, and his myth-ritual statements could wake you to the void in our lives even where it was impossible to accept his solution. "Sun Ra's consistent statement," Baraka said, "musically and spoken is that this is a primitve world. Its practices, beliefs, religions, are uneducated, unenlightened, savage, destructive, already in the past... That's why Sun Ra returned only to say he left. Into the Future. Into Space."
Thanks Jay Babcock for bringin' this to my attention